Two years of Pope Francis

March 11, 2015 in News

[These paragraphs were prepared for the opening session of a course in Dromantine, Co. Down, for mid-January 2015 but I ended up in hospital, and others made excellent use of my prepared material. Here is the original text.]

In many ways it is easy to identify how Francis is different from recent popes. Since Vatican II, which changed the atmosphere of the Church, we have had a diplomat, a philosopher and a theologian, all of them highly gifted and enriched by their own backgrounds (and no doubt limited by them as well). They say that context conditions consciousness. If so, Bergoglio came from a very different background, another place and space, and as we will see, he offers a somewhat different reading of faith, church, history, spirituality and of the pastoral needs of today.

He is the first pope to come from a religious order for nearly two centuries. His own formation and life-story made him principally a spiritual leader and guide, with a strong sense of social and pastoral mission. Of course he has other talents, including an intuitive intelligence, a sense of culture, and a special capacity for discernment and  decision-making. Even academically, spirituality and pastoral studies were his fields of specialization rather than mainstream theology.

So a spiritual-pastoral focus seems central both to his person and to his approach to ministry. His core and constant message about God’s mercy and tenderness is always accompanied by an invitation to prayerful encounter with Christ. By the way it is important for Francis not to identify mercy with forgiveness: mercy is the core divine approach to all our pain, including sin. If God is love, that love transforms itself into compassionate mercy because of us, because of our need for salvation. This underlies all his emphasis on transformation of heart, on conversion to the gospel, on opening doors to various missions on the margins. Therefore we often find him uniting in the same homily a stress on the tenderness of God and the toughness of our resistance.

But his focus is not just on the so-called spiritual life. Energy for mission is the goal of everything but it cannot happen without a conversion towards joy (as Evangelii Gaudium insists throughout). The Church needs to discover a different relation with contemporary realities, even going beyond the reconciliation with modernity represented by Vatican II. Are we talking the pulse, so to speak, of the new cultures of the vast cities such as Buenos Aires? Or are we closed, like the disciples in the upper room of our own familiar church?

Reform of structures, he has often said, has to be accompanied and inspired by reform of attitudes and priorities. It involves an inner reform and even revolution first of all. And it is this gospel-rooted spirituality that gives energy to his love of the poor and his deep reverence for what he calls “God’s holy faithful people”. It is also what makes him surprisingly severe in his critique of Pharisee-like rigidity or hypocrisy or of the subtle danger of “spiritual worldliness”. In his view, although the adventure of faith is rooted in the joy of discovering God’s compassionate love, becoming an authentic Christian inevitably involves a struggle against inner and outer idols. That emphasis on a battleground is also typical of someone with his main roots in spirituality, Ignatian but not only. “A pillar of the Pope’s spirituality is discernment”, said Cardinal Maradiaga the chairperson of his cardinal advisors, adding that the members of that group have been learning the process of real discernment, as a sifting of true from false movements of the heart or spirit.

We cannot exaggerate how central this process of genuine discernment is to the hopes of Francis. With this in mind he listed his now famous 15 ailments of the Curia, because such illnesses leave people unready for real spiritual discernment. As he has so often insisted, external restructuring is not the deep reform which the Church needs. Again it is in the light of a hope for a slow process of discernment that not only is he not afraid of conflict but relishes in it, as an important sign of healthy and honest communication.  To quote his words at the end of the Synod, “Personally I would be very worried and saddened if we had not had these animated discussions, this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace”.

In brief, perhaps we can best understand Pope Francis with two core perspectives: if we recognize the role of spirituality in his whole vision of the Church and his reading of the today’s world, and secondly if we recognize him as a pastorally rebellious conservative, willing to take on the self-idolatry of church institutions that forget to serve mission for today, that remain paralysed in fruitless in-fighting, and more seriously that can be unconsciously infected with the agnostic temptation of the Grand Inquisitor, to manage religion rigidly and to control people through fear. With this background we can better understand the contrasting reactions that Pope Francis has provoked, a huge enthusiasm in many people, including even some who are not believers, and at the same time an unease in certain quarters, a sense of disturbance or worry, sometimes expressions of strong critique, with accusations of creating confusion over moral issues, being light-weight in his theology, diminishing the dignity of the papacy, lacking a liturgical quality, and of being excessively severe in his comments on clerical life-styles.

I think that many of these opposition voices have not really understood the key to his priorities. They are complaining about secondaries and not recognizing some of the primary goals of Francis, in particular the need for a transformation of spiritual and missionary horizons as underlying any permanent structural change in the Church. In particular they hear the word “discernment” as a familiar kind of jargon, but they may have never experienced any process of spiritual discernment, with its swings of light and darkness, its emergence gradually into a firmness of prayerful decision guided by the Spirit. As the younger Bergoglio wrote more than thirty years ago “discernment is an instrument of struggle” and the struggle is to find and follow the Lord more closely.

We can find much of his vision expressed in his pre-conclave speech of just four minutes in Italian, of which this was his own summary:

  1. Evangelizing presupposes the courageous desire (parrhesia) in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only the geographical ones, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and forgetfulness (precindencia) of religion, of intellectual currents, and of all kinds of poverty.
  2. When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick, like that woman of the Gospel bent over in herself. The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism. In the Apocalypse, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter but I think of the times when Jesus knocks from inside so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ inside herself and does not let him out.
  3. When the Church is self-referential, without even being aware of it, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae [which reflects light rather than shine with its own light] and leads to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness (which according to De Lubac, is the worst evil that can befall the Church), where we live only to give glory to one another. Put simply, there are two images of the Church: Church which evangelizes and comes out of herself, the Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidente proclamans; and the worldly Church, living within herself, from herself, for herself. This should shed light on the possible changes and reforms which must be done for the salvation of souls.
  4. Thinking of the next Pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing” (Paul VI).

Looking back after two years of his papacy, we can see that he was pointing to a stark contrast and a challenging choice. Either the Church continues to remain locked up with merely internal concerns and worries or she finds the courage to emerge, to learn from the complex realities of people’s need in order to find fresh energy and joy for communicating the gospel today. But this is not just a question of strategy. It is essentially a spiritual crisis. Either we imprison Jesus in our systems or we allow the Lord freedom to work through us. So the most dangerous temptation is for religion itself to become sucked into a closed or pragmatic humanism, unconsciously acting according to the world’s way of thinking, neglecting to experience strength and consolation from prayerful listening to the Word of God.

Notice that already in that first diagnosis of the Church’s needs he was talking about sickness and he was insisting on a healing of that sickness rooted in contemplative practice, and from that authentic religious experience creative energy for mission is born. Everything he has promoted in these two years is marked by that urgency and by that vision of faith.

Michael Paul Gallagher

Guest blogger – Michael Paul Gallagher SJ

Well-known academic and author Michael Paul Gallagher is Rector of the Bellarmino in Rome. He has spent many years in the theology faculty of the Gregorian University.

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